March 18, 2013
By Jourdan Rodrigue, SDA Digital Communications Intern
Arizona State University has bolstered its pitching rotation this season with a quartet of young arms. They're so young, in fact, that if their combined ages were a fastball they would still be playing in Little League.
But these kiddos can hurl a ball right out of its stitching. Ryan Kellogg is 4-0 with the lowest ERA in the Pac-12 among starting pitchers, Brett Lilek outdueled then-No.2 Arkansas' ace, Ryan Burr has registered three saves and Eric Melbostad has yet to concede a hit.
The pitchers all bring different weapons to the mound that have certainly helped the Devils climb the national rankings through the first month of the season.
Lilek's a lanky, grinning Illinois native whose laid-back attitude vanishes the second he gets his 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame on the mound. After making his first appearance as a reliever against Bethune-Cookman, head coach Tim Esmay saw enough potential in the freshman to give him the biggest start of his life against No.2 Arkansas last month.
"I feel like anybody would be nervous," Lilek said of his first college start. "And I'm sure I'll be nervous again. But I just have to keep up the confidence and I should be okay."
His weapon is the slider (he calls it a power slider) that comes off his hand looking like a fastball but breaks hard over the plate. It was effective enough to get Lilek selected in the 37th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners, but he came to ASU instead.
"I'm glad I picked Arizona State. College is helping me grow as a player and a person," he said. "I want to play a big role here and contribute as much as I can...and get to Omaha."
Burr, who chucks a fastball that's been clocked at 96 miles per hour and prompted the Texas Rangers to use a 33rd round pick on him in the 2012 MLB Draft, opted for ASU because he also wanted to help the Maroon and Gold return to the College World Series.
"Arizona State plays the game hard and I wanted the chance to win a National Championship," said Burr. "And I wanted the collegiate experience."
Burr got his first taste of true Division I baseball when he pitched on the road in Tennessee in February.
"I don't even know if I have the words to describe it," he said. "It's so real once you put on the uniform and walk out to the field and the crowd is so loud...it's just amazing."
Burr has been throwing big-time heat since high school, and though the atmosphere is different in college, his intensity hasn't change.
"It's still baseball," he said. "You still have to throw the ball 60 feet and six inches."
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Melbostad's greatest asset may be his athleticism as he lettered in both baseball and basketball at Scottsdale's Pinnacle High School, but he believes his versatility and competitiveness gives him his edge, especially in high-pressure situations as a closer.
"I was always well-conditioned for baseball so it definitely helped during the season," said Melbostad.
Kellogg, a native of Whitby, Ontario, doesn't look his age at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, and has experience in big-time games to match.
He played for the Canadian Junior National Team and was selected in the 12th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays before committing to ASU.
"We had to learn about playing out of our element and facing guys at a higher level than you [while on the Canadian National Team," said Kellogg. "That and hearing crazy fans like we did when we were in Korea has helped with the transition to college."
Kellogg has started in multiple games beginning with Tennessee on February 24. He said he was shaky at first but evened out and his collected mindset and overall experience has helped him since. He's seen the most mound time of any of the freshmen and is already making a name for himself as a Sun Devil.
"I just try to take it one pitch at a time," he said. "That's all I can really control, so I try not to get too overwhelmed."
And Kellogg is eager to contribute to a National Championship as well.
"I want to help my team win," he said. "I want to be that guy."
The Road to Omaha
These four freshmen, under the guidance of veterans like junior Friday night starter Trevor Williams and senior right-hander Alex Blackford, have combined their unique skills to form a pitching rotation that is as versatile and well-rounded as any in the country - and one that's singularly focused on relentlessly barreling toward Omaha in the team's first year back in postseason eligibility.